BIOFUELS:

Farm state senators eye mid-level blends through spending bill

Farm state senators may offer amendments to the fiscal 2010 U.S. EPA spending bill that would allow ethanol blends in gasoline above the current 10 percent limit.

EPA is currently weighing a petition from ethanol makers, who see higher limits as a way to expand the market, for a Clean Air Act waiver to allow blends as high as 15 percent.

Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) both said they are mulling amendments but did not commit to the effort. "We are discussing it, but I have not made up my mind," Grassley said yesterday. Asked who he meant by "we," Grassley replied, "I have been thinking about it."

Nelson said he is growing impatient with EPA's decision-making on the issue of blends above 10 percent. "I have been waiting for EPA to deal with this. It is something I must admit I am concerned about because they don't seem to ever come to a conclusion," Nelson said.

Nelson said he is "taking a look" at an amendment that would require the agency to allow the mid-level blends.

A source familiar with the effort said a potential amendment would block funding for EPA if the agency did not move forward with allowing the 15 percent blends.

The 10 percent limit applies to conventional auto, marine and other engines. So-called flex-fuel vehicles are able to run on blends up to 85 percent, but availability of E85 ethanol is very limited.

Ethanol advocates say that blends above 10 percent can be used safely in conventional engines.

The amendment effort would face a major battle. Groups including refiners, environmentalists, livestock producers, boating and outdoor power equipment associations, and others oppose allowing the mid-level blends.

Opponents have raised concerns about emissions and effects on engines and say more testing is needed. "It [an amendment] would be a gross intrusion into the regulatory process," said Frank O'Donnell, head of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, who said he hoped that members would "keep their corn powder dry."

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced legislation, S. 1666, this week that would require a major new review by EPA's Science Advisory Board before the agency could authorize the so-called mid-level blends. She introduced the bill with Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

But supporters of the higher blends say sufficient analysis has shown they are safe. Growth Energy, the ethanol trade group that has petitioned EPA to allow the 15 percent blends, said the Collins bill would create an unnecessary obstacle. In a statement on the bill, spokesman Christopher Thorne said the waiver request is "simply a request for great consumer choice at the pump."

"It is explicitly not a mandate and the members of Growth Energy support the ability of boat and chainsaw owners to continue choosing 100 percent gasoline if that is their preference. We would hope that they in turn would support vehicle owners who choose to put more American-made ethanol in their gas tanks," he said.

EPA is currently weighing the petition from Growth Energy and more than 50 ethanol producers. The agency has 270 days from receipt of the petition to make a decision on it, which would be Dec. 1, an agency spokeswoman said.

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